Starting from the Discipline: The Development of Early Career Academic Leadership

This project was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, and the paper will be presented by Mr Steve Harris and Dr Terry Nolan.

The concept of Organisational Leadership is undergoing renewed scrutiny by academics and practitioners across all sectors of industry and public life including within the UK Higher Education Sector. This research was commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) to help remedy an apparent reluctance on the part of ‘early career’ academics (ECAs) to take on leadership roles. Research data points to generally confused perceptions regarding the expanded remit of a modern academic that goes beyond research and teaching, into administrative management, societal engagement and the demands of an increasing neo-liberal agenda for market-oriented approaches to Higher Education.
The intial focus of this research was to determine whether leadership needs differ between academic disciplines. Interviews were conducted with ECAs and HoDs from across three discplines in three HEIs with respondents drawn from ECAs in each discipline together with acting or past Heads of Department. Using a Phenomenological approach, interview data was collated under thematic headings.
Although disparities were observed in the types of work-related objectives set by academics from the Russell Group university compared with those from the other two institutions, no distinctions were apparent in respect to what leadership means or how appropriate competencies may be developed. Moreover, an ambivalent attitude prevails towards the general notion of leadership and its applicability to the academic role. The overriding impression is that leadership somehow ‘happens’, to a greater or lesser degree, during the course of a typical career. Nonetheless, leadership does appear to surface across all academic roles at some point. Its development in individuals also appears to emulate the ‘apprenticeship’ model whereby differing levels of leadership are expected of academics by virtue of their qualifications and experience, even in situations in which they have received no formal training.
In order to add structure and help reduce ambivalence around the issue, Hogan and Kaiser’s (1995) model of generic leadership competencies has been adapted to fit the variety of roles likely to be undertaken by academics. The model’s four ‘Domains’ makes the distiction between ‘Intrapersonal’, ‘Business/Academic’, ‘Interpersonal’ and ‘People-Leadership’ competencies and, in so doing, supports the validity of both the individual-centric and the ‘distributed’, group-centric notions of leadership within the academy.
Finally, provisional suggestions are offered with regards to the indentification and development of leadership potential from the initial recruitment stage, together with the developmental methods most appropriate for the task.